Travelling Central Asia is a fabulously enriching experience. Despite all being previously ruled by the Soviet Union, every country in the region has their own unique language, history and culture to get lost in. Uzbekistan is known as the gem of Central Asia and since it is now visa free for most nationalities, travel to Uzbekistan has never been easier.
The ancient trade route between China and the Mediterranean, known as the Silk Road, passed through Central Asia. What is now known as Uzbekistan had some key trading cities along this route. These cities played host to many bloody battles over the centuries.
“His skin darkened with dye, and posing as a Muslim holy man, Lieutenant Eldred Pottinger…entered Herat on a routine Great Game reconnaissance….Aged 26, and the nephew of that veteran of the game Colonel Henry Pottinger, he had been sent into Afghanistan to gather intelligence.” Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game. Before you embark in any trip along the Silk Road, do yourself a favour and read this book!
Sure, the Brits may all be heroes, the Russians callous and the Asians savage, but putting that to one side, it is highly entertaining and historically well researched. It will give you a great insight into the espionage and treachery that were being used by the Brits and Russians during the battle for Central Asia in the 19th century. It will make you look at sites in a completely different light. For example, when you finally see the “Tower of Death” in Bukhara, gruesome stories from those visitors brave enough to step foot in the Khanate will replay in your mind.
However, I digress. We are not here to talk about Bukhara or even the Silk Road for that matter. We are here to explore some of Uzbekistan’s more hidden gems. Locations that require a little more intrepidness and provide any avid explorer the chance to get off the beaten track. Here are my hidden gems for anyone considering travel to Uzbekistan.
Everything you see in the famous cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand might be old, but this archaeological site is really old! Kala or Qala means fort and there are several of these to be found in the Kyzylkum desert. Ayaz Kala is the most intact of these forts and for this reason is well worth a visit if you travel to Uzbekistan.
There are three forts at this site which are easy to explore. The largest of these sites sits on a hilltop with nothing but desert for miles around. Within the mud brick walls of the fort one can find remains of palaces dating back to points between the 4th century BC and the 7th century AD. In their time, these forts were vital in protecting its people from invading parties.
After it was finally sacked by Ghengis Khan, the forts were abandoned and left to rot for centuries. The fortresses were rediscovered in the 1940s and subsequently excavated. Having been exposed and unprotected ever since, now they sadly lie in great danger of being destroyed by the elements.
There is no official entrance fee for the site, however there is a small yurt camp nearby where the lady likes to chance her luck and will ask for donations. The yurt camp provides food and accommodation for anyone wishing to stay for the night.
The best way to access Ayaz Kala is by taxi or on a tour from Khiva. The site is very much a ruin so consider hiring a guide to take you around. If you have camping equipment it is possible to camp near to the lower fort, as I did during my visit in 2018.
Moynaq was once a bustling fishing port on the southern end of the Aral Sea. Unfortunately today it more resembles a ghost town with a harbour more than 90 miles from the shore. The main attraction for a visit to Moynaq is to see the ship graveyard that sits at the very northern end of town, next to the old light house.
Before the 1960s the Aral sea was the forth largest lake in the world, however today it has shrunk to 10% of its original size. Due to irrigation practices for cotton production during the Soviet era, the Aral Sea Disaster has caused the decimation of a fishing industry and a whole host of health issues for local people. The pesticides left behind from the cotton farming have been deposited in the former sea bed. During storms these get swept up and cause respiratory problems for those who inhale it. A project is underway to plant thousands of trees on the former sea bed to prevent the contaminated sand from spreading.
Moynaq can be accessed by a daily marshrutka or shared taxi from Nukus. There are also private tours available which can also include taking a jeep out to the shore of the Aral Sea, some 150km beyond Moynaq. If possible, spend the night in Moynaq so you can enjoy sunset and sunrise over the ship graveyard. There is a conveniently placed yurt camp overlooking the ship graveyard, next to the lighthouse. A cafe in the bottom floor of the lighthouse also serves food and drinks.
I first travelled to Uzbekistan in 2015. On this trip I travelled overland from Kyrgyzstan to the Fergana valley, which is located in eastern Uzbekistan. Very few foreigners visit this part of Uzbekistan, which is quite refreshing after the bustling tourist cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand.
The Fergana valley consists of a series of towns known for its handicrafts, such as silk and pottery. It is the most fertile part of Uzbekistan and played an important role in Silk Road history. Yodgorlik silk factory in Margilon provides free tours explaining how silk is made and how the patterns are designed. In Rishton you can visit Usmanov Ceramic workshop to learn about pottery production and no visit to Kokand is complete without a visit to the Kudayar Khan Palace.
During my visit I stayed in Fergana City which is quite a modern city with a central park to wander around. There are many hotels to choose from and whilst it is not a memorable city it does have a central location. Fergana City is therefore, a good base from which to explore the rest of Fergana Valley. Fergana city can be accessed by a daily train from Tashkent. All regions around the Fergana Valley can be accessed via shared taxis which depart from the main bazaar.
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